The Skipper Restaurant
by: John Stanton
“I remember the huge winch that was at the bow, and the graceful curve of her deck and bulwarks. Even at a young age I could appreciate the magnifi- cent view across the Easy Street Basin, and of course no visit was complete without feeding the seagulls by hand while sitting at your table.”
Tobey Leske, the last in a line of island watermen who wrote The Inquirer and Mirror column “On the Waterfront,” wrote those lines. They are memories shared by many folks over a certain age, locals or visitors, about the family restaurant that once operated on the deck of a schooner off Steamboat Wharf.
The boat itself was a two-masted schooner called the Allen Gur- ney, built in a Hudson River boatyard in 1876. In the winter of 1921, the badly-leaking vessel arrived on Nantucket with a load of coal for Island Service Company. It never left.
When the column was called “Water Front,” in 1920, it men- tioned that “Schooner Allen Gurney, which has been docked on the end of Island Service Wharf all winter, is being hauled out into the stream.”
The year before, in 1920, Miss Margret Prentice and Miss Gladys Wood opened a tearoom in a small house on Liberty Street. They called it The Skipper. It was so popular that they were looking for a larger space. They found it on Steamboat Wharf.
The place they found had been the print shop of The Inquirer and Mirror in 1890, when it was just off Monument Square. It had been sold, moved to a small piece of property on Steamboat Wharf owned by the New Haven Railroad, and housed a merry- go-round called the Flying Horses. When that business failed it became a steam laundry.
Then Miss Prentice and Miss Wood bought it and moved their tearoom there. When they heard that the leaking Allen Gurney was never going to sail away, they managed to buy it, have it moved alongside the wharf, near the building, and sunk in place.
They began to serve food on the deck of the ship. The menu
included what old islanders called a shore dinner, lobster for $2.15, and cream cheese and pickled walnut sandwiches for 20 cents.
They ran it from 1921 to 1944, then sold it to William Beers. He was an actor and a member of the Sconset actors’ colony. He brought theater to the deck of the boat to entertain diners.
By 1956 the Allen Gurney was in such bad condition that it was taken apart and replaced with what Leske called “a replica, sort of, built in the same position,” but the popularity never waned.
Mr. and Mrs. Carl Erickson bought the restaurant in 1969. They sold it to the last owner, Henry Fee, in 1974. In 1984 the Steamship Authority, looking for a way to maximize return on its property, cranked up the rent on Fee enough that he could no longer afford to stay open.
One letter to the editor, in 1984, urged officials at the Steamship Authority to “keep in mind how valuable both the restaurant and The Skipper Singers are to Nantucket. (There is) no better family restaurant and no family entertainment that is as good.”
But the ship, the restaurant and the singers all sank into the fog of history. In 1986, The Skipper was demolished.
And so ended a restaurant that held a special place in the memories of generations of folks who dined there and fed the seagulls.
Leske called the Allen Gurney “a good ship that led a storied and interesting life.” ///
John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker living on Nan- tucket. He is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.